Book Extracts
Fallout by Paul Thomas


Since becoming Auckland District Commander and developing an appreciation for wine — the two were related — Finbar McGrail hadn’t been sleeping as well as he used to.

His late, grimly Presbyterian mother was fond of saying ‘the sleep of the righteous is sweet’, a paraphrase of Proverbs 3:24. While McGrail was confident that promotion hadn’t disabled his moral compass, he had to acknowledge that he’d gone from having an occasional glass of wine to not needing an occasion to open a bottle, and from dutifully saying his prayers to no longer bothering to touch base with God before calling it a night.

First the formalities were dispensed with: the kneeling beside the bed, head bowed (because although heaven is commonly thought to be up there somewhere, presumably above airliners’ cruising altitude, believers know that God is everywhere, even under one’s bed), hands clasped, eyes shut, the constipated expression of rapture tempered by obeisance. Once he started saying his prayers after, rather than before, getting into bed, it was a short step to mouthing the words, as opposed to saying them out loud, and an even shorter step to thinking them. And once the process was internalised, it was difficult not to get distracted or deflected. It was almost as if his mind had a mind of its own.

Eventually McGrail gave up the struggle and fell into the habit of thinking about work for however long it took for his wife’s current book to make her eyelids droop. When she said good-night and turned off the bedside light, he would roll onto his side and go to sleep, albeit not without a twinge of guilt, like someone who has let another day go by without ringing his aged parents.

As often as not these days, McGrail would wake up in the early hours. Rather than wait for the fog of sleep to roll back in or engage in that erratic, tangential mental activity that seems productive, even inspired, at 3 am but turns out to be inconsequential at best when retrieved in the morning, he’d slip out of bed. After making himself a cup of cocoa, he’d go into his study to chip away at his email backlog, which was seldom less than a hundred messages.

Before he went back to bed, McGrail would look at a photo that he still kept in his bottom drawer even though his children had left home. It was a head-and-shoulders shot of a teenage girl trying to put on an exasperated ‘Do I really have to do this?’ expression but unable to keep the smile off her face. McGrail knew a lot about this girl, whose name was Polly Stenson. For instance, he knew that she’d had her braces removed a fortnight before the photo was taken. The orthodontist had met the challenge he’d been set two years earlier: to have Polly’s teeth straight and unencumbered by her seventeenth birthday.

The date print-out, in orange lettering, on the bottom right-hand corner of the photo said 15. 8. 87. It was taken on the last afternoon of Polly Stenson’s short life.

McGrail had been in New Zealand a fortnight, having left Northern Ireland even though — in fact because — he was a rising star in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Stenson murder was the first case for Auckland Central’s new Detective Inspector, of whom much was expected.

Polly was murdered at an election-night party held at the spectacular Remuera home of merchant banker Tim Barton and his wife Nicky. Barton had called it a ‘Win-Win’ party because, as far as people like him were concerned, it made no difference who won the election. That was understandable: it seemed to McGrail that the only real economic disagreement between the two major parties was over which of them was the more laissez-faire.

McGrail was taken aback by the ostentatious displays of wealth and unashamed extravagance he encountered during the investigation. He and his wife had decided to immigrate to New Zealand after extensive research and the process of elimination led them to the conclusion that their people — the Protestants of Ulster — had more in common with New Zealanders than any other nationality.

McGrail was under the impression that New Zealanders were stoic, understated, laconic to the point of taciturnity, suspicious of self-promotion and public display, inclined to pessimism and quick to say ‘I told you so’ when their gloomy prognoses were borne out. The glaring difference was that New Zealanders didn’t seem to take religion anywhere near seriously enough to kill or maim their neighbours over denominational differences. (That was an aspect of life in Northern Ireland that McGrail was keen to put behind him: he had thought about emigrating for years, but the tipping point was finding out that his name was on a Provisional IRA hit-list. While hit-lists were a dime a dozen in Belfast — there were pub darts teams who had them — the Provos had already put a black line through some of the names on theirs.) If McGrail had wanted nouveau-riche vulgarity, he would have gone to America, or even Australia. Thankfully it didn’t last. After the Black Tuesday sharemarket crash later that year, New Zealanders reverted to type. For a while, anyway.

The investigation was a nightmare. Over the course of the evening at least three hundred people had passed through the Barton mansion, but that was a woolly estimate since there were no formal invitations or guest list: Barton had just put the word out to his friends who passed it on to their various overlapping social circles. Barton’s twenty-one-year-old son Johnny and teenage daughter Lucy had hosted their own sub-parties.

There was no proper security and therefore no one with a sober recollection of comings and goings or who was likely to notice odd or jarring behaviour. Security, such as it was, was provided by Johnny’s rugby team who were given the narrow brief of repelling any uncouth elements that might try to crash the party. Predictably, most of the rugby players got drunker and did so faster than the other attendees.

Polly and Lucy went to the same girls’ private school, although Polly was a bit of an outsider. Her father was middle management; she was a scholarship girl, bright and athletic. Although her friends had done their best to corrupt her, Polly stuck to her unfashionable principles relating to booze, drugs and what was a seemly level of sexual activity for a girl her age.

By midnight, most of the girls and their dates — Polly was one of the few in the group who didn’t have a boyfriend — were too tipsy or distracted to look out for their friends. But then why would they? If you weren’t safe in that grand house in one of Auckland’s most prestigious streets surrounded by hundreds of people, including MPs from both major parties and an array of Rich Listers and movers and shakers, where on earth would you be?

The Barton place was on three levels. The ground floor was the living and entertainment area. Downstairs was the kids’ domain: the only adults who ventured below were the cleaning ladies. Upstairs was the parents’ quarters, complete with his-and-hers studies, library, gymnasium and sauna. It was well understood that upstairs was a child-free no-go zone.

The adults had congregated on the ground floor. The younger generation had split into groups: despite the time of year the rugby players yahooed around the pool; Lucy and friends mainly stayed downstairs; the little band of dope smokers had made their furtive way to the tennis court.

Polly had arranged to sleep over at another friend’s house; a cab was booked for 2 am. Around 11.30 pm, without saying where she was going or why, she went upstairs. She had a brief exchange with Tim Barton, telling him she felt like getting some fresh air. He later said she seemed fine: she’d obviously had a few drinks but wasn’t drunk, disoriented or looking for trouble.

Outside she bumped into a friend’s boyfriend who’d been out on the tennis court where the joints were circulating. She told him she was taking time out from the tiresome boy-girl interaction downstairs. He advised her to get stoned, knowing there was zero chance of that happening. That was the last anyone saw of her.

Death on Demand by Paul Thomas



Greytown, fourteen years ago

Females had always found him hard to resist. When he was small, his aunts and cousins cooed and fussed over him, telling him how gorgeous he was. His older sister was like a second mother: she spoilt him, couldn’t stay mad at him, wouldn’t let him leave the house without a hug. Other kids, their sisters called them retards and wouldn’t touch them without rubber gloves.

At thirteen he had a growth spurt, and suddenly wasn’t a cute little boy any more. Now his aunts went on about what a handsome young man he was becoming. When the phone rang in the evening half the time it was girls wanting to speak to him, which made his old man huff and puff. Once he overheard his sister on the phone: “Forget it, bitch,” she said. “He’s way too young for you. I don’t give a shit that his balls have dropped, he’s still only fourteen. Let me explain something: I worry about my sweet little bro. I worry about him getting pimples and an attitude and turning into a dropkick; I worry about him getting in with a bad crowd and leaving school with nothing to show for it; I worry about all sorts of things. But most of all I worry about my slut friends getting their slutty little claws into him and putting him off girls for good.”

Around that time his parents had a party. He helped out pouring drinks, picking up empties, slipping coasters under glasses left on the sideboard. This woman he hardly knew kept staring at him. Next time he came by with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, she waved her empty glass. He went over. She manoeuvred him into a corner, standing right in front of him with her back to the room. It was weird: she was his mother’s age and spoke to him like adults usually did, asking pointless questions – “So what’s your favourite subject?” – and not listening to his replies, but she kept touching him, squeezing his bicep and stroking his forearm. Her face was so close her breath warmed his cheek. Her leg pressed against his.

He squeezed past her, saying he had to get some more wine. She followed him into the kitchen, eyes bright, lips curved in an unsettling smile. She pushed him up against the bench. Her mouth fell open as she reached out to pull his face down to hers. He tasted wine as her tongue flailed around inside his mouth. Footsteps in the corridor made her pull away. A guy came in looking for beer, and as soon as they started talking he slipped out the back door and ran down the street to a friend’s house. He didn’t tell his mates; they gave him enough shit about being a pretty boy as it was. Besides, they would have thought it was gross, some old bag sticking her tongue down your throat.

She was really friendly next time he saw her. Thinking about it that night, he decided it was probably because he’d kept his mouth shut: in Greytown gossip circulated at the speed of sound. He was tempted to knock on her door one morning after her husband had left for work just to see what would happen, but there was a fair chance it could backfire, big-time. He was curious, but not that curious.

He wasn’t academic, but he was worldly by the standards of Greytown teenagers and had grown up with an older sister. He lost interest in girls his age pretty quickly. He tended to lose interest in girls younger than him before their friends had finished asking him to ask them out. He gravitated towards older girls, but the smart, sparky ones took off as soon as they’d left school, whether to go to university or embark on life’s big adventure.

Craig and Donna came up from Wellington to run one of the cafés which had sprung up along the main street. They rented the house next door while the owners, empty nesters, went travelling for a year. There was a party every weekend, which ruffled his parents’ feathers, but he got on fine with them and scored a part-time general dogsbody gig at their café.

He got on particularly well with Donna, who he guessed was in her mid-twenties. She’d lived in Sydney for a couple of years and bummed around Asia, sleeping on beaches, smoking weed, doing Buddhism for beginners. The problem with the girls he went out with was that they didn’t know how much was enough, so they showed too much thigh or too much tit or were too eager to please, trying to swallow you whole when they kissed or sucking your dick without being asked and probably without wanting to because they didn’t want to be labelled cock-teasers. He actually didn’t mind a bit of cock-teasing; it added to the fun, gave you something to look forward to. Donna made them seem very young: indiscriminate, compliant little herd animals. She had a way of triggering a rush of longing with just a look, a sideways smile, a murmured aside.

Not that he had great expectations. For a start, she was a woman and he was a boy. A good-looking, rapidly maturing one perhaps, but still a boy. Secondly, she was living with a guy. She laughed when he asked if she and Craig were married – “Oh yeah, that’s me: good little wifey” – but they seemed as much of a couple in their interaction as most of the husbands and wives he’d observed. And while Craig treated him okay and took the piss in that blokey way, he had the look of someone you wouldn’t want to cross.

His bedroom window looked out onto his father’s vegetable garden and into next door’s spare room, where Craig had set up his weights. One day he was idly watching Craig pump iron in front of a mirror with his shirt off when Donna appeared in little shorts and a tight singlet. He kept watching, but closely now. Suddenly Craig got up off the bench and came over to the window. He gave him a weak grin and a wave; Craig held his expressionless stare for five seconds, then squeezed out a thin smile. Next day at the café Donna told him he should feel free to come over for a workout if he ever got the urge. He blushed and started to apologize, but she grazed a fingernail down the side of his face. “It’s okay, baby,” she murmured. “It’s cool.”

He sometimes wondered what she made of Craig’s habit of laying a heavy dose of charm on any attractive woman who came into the café. This particular day he was behind the counter watching Craig do a number on this woman from Carterton who’d started coming in on her own pretty regularly. Suddenly Donna was standing right behind him, resting her hand on the small of his back.

“Look at that wanker,” she said. “He thinks he’s irresistible. You could teach him a thing or two.”

He turned his head to look at her. She was so close they were almost bumping noses. “What about?”

She gave him a lazy smile. “Oh, you know, how to look at a woman. Raw lust doesn’t do it for most of us, any more than being taken for granted. We like to see a little tenderness.”

Then without warning, without saying goodbye, without a word to anyone, Donna and Craig were gone. It was the shock of his young life: he was used to deciding when a relationship’s time was up, as opposed to having it decided for him. Whatever there was between him and Donna was undeclared, unfulfilled and at least partly in his head, but it was more real and more significant to him than any number of teenage pairings with their juvenile rituals and matter-of-fact sex. And while there was an element of fantasy, it was a fantasy she’d encouraged. He hadn’t imagined that. He was crushed that she could leave him desolate, without a word or gesture to acknowledge the depth and purity of his infatuation.

It turned out that they’d skipped on a raft of unpaid bills, including several months’ rent. His mother went into I-told-you-so mode, insisting she always knew they were fly-by-nighters, there was just something about them, good riddance to bad rubbish. His Donna thing hadn’t gone unnoticed by his contemporaries. Boys who’d had to make do with his sniffling cast-offs and girls he’d ignored or casually dumped delighted in telling him that he’d made himself look ridiculous, having a crush on a grown-up woman who obviously didn’t give a shit.

His old man, of all people, was the only one to shed any light. Donna and Craig were chancers, he said, drifting from place to place looking for an arrangement, a set of circumstances, which worked for them; when it didn’t materialize, they moved on. Because they never stayed in one place long enough to form real relationships, it didn’t bother them to run out on their debts or abandon people who thought of them as friends. That set his mother off again: they were common criminals, she snorted; it was just a matter of time before the police caught up with them and they got what they deserved.

He hardly slept that night. Now he got it. Why would they stay in Greytown? What would keep them there? It was a place you had to get away from, and that’s what they’d done. No explanation, no apology: when it was time to go, just disappear without a trace. That way you could start again somewhere without having to worry about the past – people who’d passed their use-by dates, pain-in-the-arse complications – stretching out its long, bony arm to tap you on the shoulder.

Another couple, gays this time, took over the café. It was just drudgery now, but he stayed on because he needed the money for what he had in mind. A week before the end of the school year, he got a letter, care of the café. It was from Donna. She was sorry for taking off like that, but things had got messy and they’d done their dash in Greytown. He had to get out of there, she wrote, or he’d end up just another drongo stuck in a shit job, living a shit life. If he made it to Auckland, he should check out the Ponsonby café and bar scene: if she was still there, they were bound to bump into one another sooner or later. There was a PS: “Burn this and don’t tell anyone you’ve heard from me.”

His plan firmed up. His parents were spending Christmas and New Year in Mount Maunganui with relatives; a couple of his mates were going down to Wellington to watch the cricket test at the Basin Reserve. He told his parents he was going to the cricket and would crash on the floor of a friend of a friend’s flat; he told his mates he’d ride with them down to Wellington but peel off to go camping in the Sounds with his sister and her boyfriend.

His mates dropped him off on Lambton Quay. He lugged his bag to the train station and bought a ticket to Auckland. He left without warning, without saying goodbye, without a word to anyone.